How journalism happens

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Written by a documentary film-maker, daughter of the late, great NYT journalist David Carr

 

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s ironic — we each have more access now, thanks to the Internet, to thousands of media sources from across the globe than ever before.

Yet I see such tremendous ignorance of what journalism is.

What we do. Why we do it. What we earn. Our many constraints and challenges.

So, as we close out this decade, this is my stake in the ground, a sort of Media 101. (If this is all overly familiar, sorry!)

 

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Where does a “news” story come from?

The textbook definition of news means it’s new (something we haven’t seen or heard before); it affects the outlet’s audience (whether local, regional, national or global); it affects someone wealthy or powerful (a sad metric, but often used); it marks a significant change from prior experience; a natural disaster; a major crime.

It also, ideally, covers all levels of government. Ideally, also we cover major issues like income inequality/poverty, health, education, environment, etc.

Do journalists pay their sources?

No. This is common in some British tabloids, but not in North America, where it’s taboo. It demands cooperation from sources, yes, but it means (ideally!) that money doesn’t buy access or coverage.

Do sources pay to be in a story?

No! There is now the absurd belief — based on “journalism” like Forbes’ blogs — that you just pay to play. I’ve been offered payment many times by sources to write about them. Unscrupulous journalists accept, creating the fantasy this is normal. It is not.

 

 

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How do I know who or what to trust?

This is now a huge and troubling issue — I recently attended a powerful and sobering event at the New York HQ for Reuters, with terrific panelists addressing this very question.

The first speaker, who flew in from London, showed the audience five videos and asked us to vote on whether they were fake or real. Some were fake, and so carefully created it was really difficult to tell.

In an era of such deceptive deepfakes, question carefully!

 

Who writes the headlines?

Not the reporters! Every outlet has a series of editors above the reporters and they will oversee the headlines and write them. No reporter writes their own headlines; freelancers can and do suggest one when pitching, and some will be kept.

Same for book titles; I named my first book and my editor (thankfully!) named my second.

Who writes the captions for photos?

Editors. Sometimes the photographer.

 

How much do reporters make?

Hah! So much less than people imagine. In 2019, the American average was $40,081. To put this into context, I earned $45,000 as a reporter for the Montreal Gazette  — in the 1980s. If you’re fortunate enough to get hired by a major national outlet, like Reuters wire service or The New York Times, you might get $90,000 or more.

How much do TV reporters make?

A lot more, depending if regional or national. Those working at the national level — sometimes more experienced and skilled — will make more. Locally, $56,455.

 

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How much do authors make?

Some, millions. Some, pennies!

There are many, many tiers of book publishing, from academic houses to small indies to the mega’s like Simon & Schuster or Harper Collins, able to offer enormous advances to those they think worth the investment — like Michelle and Barack Obama, who got (reportedly) $65 million.

An “advance” may be divided into three or four parts: one on signing the deal, one on acceptance of the manuscript; one on publication and one (!) a year or more after publication. Hardly “advance”!

Every payment will likely lose 15 percent off the top to the agent who sold it.

Every book sold means more money, right?

Nope.

If your advance is $100,000, you must “earn out” that sum before getting another dime from the publisher.

And the game is rigged, since every book sold does not give the author the cover price!

We get eight percent of the retail price.

So this belief that a TV or radio or podcast appearance means a huge boost to our income from our books is wishful fantasy.

What exactly do TV and radio producers do?

There are “bookers” and producers who find and pre-interview people they think will be good on-air. You may have noticed a predominance of white men. People with no discernible accent.

 

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How do people actually end up getting interviewed by the media?

A variety of ways. Some have in-house communications departments or PIOs (public information officers) to handle requests formally. Some have a public relations firm pumping out press releases all the time! Some know a journalist or producer personally.

If it’s a major news event, like a shooting or natural disaster, we speak to as many people there as possible — traumatic for them, often.

 

How do you get access to documents?

Some use a Freedom of Information Act — FOIA — to get at them. It’s been in American law since 1967, the legal right to access any document from any federal agency.

Sometimes we get them offered to us by an internal whistle-blower.

 

How are freelance writers paid?

Bizarrely, by the word. Sometimes a flat fee. These range from $150 to $10,000 or more. No rules. No guidelines. It’s every-man-for-himself. So a story of 500 words at .50 cents per word will pay less than a magazine piece at $2/word for 3,000 words.

We are not paid until the story is accepted — and that can take months. It’s a huge problem.

Stories also get “killed” — not used and maybe not even paid for, maybe 25 percent of the original fee.

 

A glossary:

 

Hed

The headline.

Sub-hed

A sub-heading within the body of a story, often used to break up copy and keep the reader moving.

Pull-quote or call-out

A phrase or quote that’s memorable, meant to entice the reader into the story.

Dek

A brief description of the story.

Lede

The first sentence or paragraph. Crucial!

Kicker

The final sentence or paragraph. Crucial!

Graf

A paragraph.

The 5 W’s and H

Who, What, When, Where, Why and How….every story should answer these.

B-roll

Images to illustrate a TV story or video that aren’t the main event. Sometimes shot in advance.

Nut graf

High up in a story, the graf that explains why the story is even worth reading.

Explainer

A detailed story to explain a complicated issue.

Presser

A press conference.

On the record

Everything you say is now for permanent, public consumption. (Off the record means it’s not — but only if you preface your remarks with this phrase, not afterward.)

Whose newspaper is it, anyway? The New York Times and the 1%

By Caitlin Kelly

 

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Loyal readers of The New York Times consider it one of the world’s greatest newspapers. Founded in 1851, today it’s read by millions of people worldwide thanks to its digital version. Some consider it the only news source they can rely on for accuracy and depth of reporting; others find its coverage of the world grotesquely skewed.

My husband and I — to use that classic American sports analogy — have skin in this game; I’ve been writing for the Times as a freelancer since 1990; my latest story for them, about Americans married to a foreign national who choose to retire overseas, runs in this weekend’s edition. My husband, a photo editor there, has been a staff photographer and photo editor for the Times for 30 years.

But the paper is now going through what one insider calls a “tectonic change” as it shifts increasingly to digital and prepares to rid itself of 100 staff. It’s offering them buyouts which must be accepted by December 1.

The Times is also shifting in the way it covers the world and, according to some, not for the better.

Margaret Sullivan, the paper’s public editor — whose unenviable task it is to take her own employer to the woodshed within its pages — recently addressed the paper’s new and consistent attention to the concerns of the wealthiest:

I often hear about from readers who are frustrated by what they describe as elitism in the paper’s worldview, and who would like The Times and its staff to remember that the median household income in the United States is close to $52,000 a year, and that about 15 percent of Americans live in poverty.

It’s not hard to see why they feel that way. The featured apartments with their $10 million price tags and white-glove amenities seem aimed at hedge fund managers, if not Russian oligarchs. The stories on doughnuts at $20 a half dozen are for those who are flush with disposable income, not struggling to pay the rent. Many of the parties, the fashions, even the gadgets are well beyond the reach of the middle class.

It’s no secret that The Times often is intended to appeal to its many affluent readers and, at least sometimes, the advertisers who want to reach them. (Consider the ad-heavy special section produced twice a year and called, simply, “Wealth.”)

Claudia Griffiths, a reader in Maine, put it this way: “$160 flashlight and $219 level? Do the one percent of the one percent need your home-tool shopping help? Hello. Could the Times editors consider for WHOM they are actually writing? Here, not most Americans.”

I’ve lost patience with it, both as someone who wants to write about a broader and more diverse cross-section of sources, and as someone weary of other media outlets chasing down the wealthy and sucking up to them hard — from the FT’s (yes, this is really the name of their magazine), How to Spend It to The Robb Report to Town & Country, Tatler, you name it.

It’s so much more amusing for editors, writers and the advertisers of expensive goods they need to keep selling to coo over the cars/homes/furs/jewels of the filthy rich than contemplate the misery and frustration of the poor, let alone the struggling middle class, whose stagnant wages, stuck for decades at appallingly low levels in an era of record corporate profits, have left millions running as hard as they possibly can just to stay in place.

If a newspaper with the putative authority and depth of the Times keeps fawning over the rich — and just take a quick look at the quarter-page ads that run in it every day from Chanel, Cartier and other luxury goods purveyors — what signal does that send to the rest of us?

If the world’s soi-disant best newspaper barely looks at, let alone seriously addresses the underlying policy shifts that have created the worst income inequality in the U.S. since the Gilded Era more than a century agowho will?

Some people — and you may smile indulgently at their naievete and idealism, and yes, a career journalist I’m one of them — believe that journalism exists not merely as a megaphone with which to trumpet the “achievements” of the wealthy and powerful but to shine a light on the many interwoven reasons so many Americans languish in poverty.

(My last book, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” talked in very real terms about what it’s like to live on low wages in the U.S. Only by working 2.5 years, even part-time, at $11/hour [a wage many employers here consider munificent] did I appreciate what a nightmare of a life it is.)

Jose and I read Neiman Reports, a magazine about the business of journalism, which last year addressed the paucity of poverty coverage by American journalists:

Nearly 50 million people—about one in six Americans—live in poverty, defined as income below $23,021 a year for a family of four. And yet most news organizations largely ignore the issue. The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism indexed stories in 52 major mainstream news outlets from 2007 through the first half of 2012 and, according to Mark Jurkowitz, the project’s associate director, “in no year did poverty coverage even come close to accounting for as little as one percent of the news hole. It’s fair to say that when you look at that particular topic, it’s negligible.”

Instead, as Tampa Bay Times media critic Eric Deggans notes, at most news organizations poverty comes up sporadically. “Poverty becomes a sort of ‘very special episode’ of journalism that we sort of roll out every so often,” he says.

The reasons for the lack of coverage are familiar. Journalists are drawn more to people making things happen than those struggling to pay bills; poverty is not considered a beat; neither advertisers nor readers are likely to demand more coverage, so neither will editors; and poverty stories are almost always enterprise work, requiring extra time and commitment. Yet persistent poverty is in some ways the ultimate accountability story—because, often, poverty happens by design.

“Poverty exists in a wealthy country largely as a result of political choices, not as a result of pure economics,” argues Sasha Abramsky, a journalist whose upcoming book is called “The American Way of Poverty.” “The U.S. poverty rate is higher than most other developed nations, and the only way you can square that is there are political choices being made—or not being made—that accept a level of poverty that most wealthy democracies have said is unacceptable. We make these policy choices that perpetuate poverty, and then because poverty is so extreme, it becomes impolite to talk about.”

Do you find the media’s coverage of poverty adequate?

Does it matter to you if journalists ignore the poor and their struggles?

Will The WSJ Kick The NYT's Butt Covering NYC? Will Anyone Notice?

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Image by vaticanus via Flickr

Here’s a New York magazine look at the upcoming battle — which starts April 26 with the launch of the Wall Street Journal’s new Metro section — between The New York Times and The Journal. Typically old-media, it lists all the names of all the reporters covering each beat (the same parlance as cops use, your specialty area, for civilians reading this), and suggests that with twice the bench strength, the Times is set to conquer.

Not so fast.

If you actually read the Times‘ metro-area coverage, you’ll see its focus on — surprise! — the wealthy and powerful, with an equally consistent attention to the downtrodden. Someone, somewhere, finally persuaded the copy desk that the oft-used euphemism “gritty” — as in X is a “gritty neighborhood”  is a lousy, weak substitute for the simple word “poor.” But then, that word can be construed as making a value judgment, while “gritty”, vague and polite and oblique, offers an adjectival deke.

The Times actually has a list of “forbidden” words that one bumps into as a freelancer when a copy editor says, “No, you can’t use that word.” Some are obvious cliches, others a decision made by someone higher up.

The Times recently added a new city beat, covering what goes on in Manhattan’s private schools. Has Gossip Girl really caught on to this degree? I attended private school for six years, and can’t imagine who wants to read a word, (except wealthy parents, their subscriber base) about the $25,000/year darlings of Spence, Collegiate, Horace Mann or their ilk. These kids are interesting because…?

As anyone who reads True/Slant knows — or listens to the BBC or (insert favorite website/blogger/news source here) — it doesn’t take a huge staff to break national or international stories. You don’t need an Ivy or graduate degree. The notion of “shoe leather” (pleather for the vegans) reporting remains unchanged. It’s also called GOYA — as in Get Off Your Ass. News is not found in press releases, at press conferences, in pundits and academics and think tankers’ opinions — so much easier on a snowy/rainy/humid day than actually interviewing real people a 45-minute cab or subway ride away from the office.

You need intelligence, the willingness to take some risks, and the patience, curiosity and people skills to winkle out great stories from people you take the time, over time to get to know.

Then, having read your stuff and knowing it’s accurate and fair, they decide to trust you and may tell you first– instead of your many competitors — some really good stuff.

I was the first reporter to land a major national story in 2006 when at the Daily News.  I snagged the story the way many of us do — I read a short AP story from Connecticut, sensed a much larger issue in it not yet told, (and out of our coverage area) and made a call to the primary source. My piece did not run for many weeks because it would have offended major advertisers. Only after 60 Minutes, Time and The New York Times got it — because my source, fairly enough, was fed up and wanted his story told and gave up on me — did it run.

Yet he called me a few weeks ago, telling me because he remembered my initial passion for his story, with its latest twist.

A news “battle” relies far less on the number, strength and training of the troops. Like every decisive fight, it also relies on the courage, morality, intelligence, strategy and quick thinking of the generals, the city editors who decide what deserves coverage in the first place, and who hire, run, praise or punish their reporters by giving them great stories to cover, space/time to do them properly, great art or photos or graphics, good play in the paper and on-line.

I was, for a month or two, the national editor of a short-lived, insanely wacky (but fun and a good idea) daily newspaper in Manhattan, called Her New York, whose focus was to be on women. We were a laughingstock, but gave it our best. Our owner ended up going to prison for financial misdeeds. My desk was a slab of formica, my desk “drawer” a cardboard box on the floor. We still broke some stories.

It will be interesting to watch these well-paid soldiers, an elite corps simply by having a newspaper job these days, don their intellectual armor and clank their away across the five boroughs. The city is complicated and has, like all huge cities, many untold stories, entire constituencies deemed too snoozy or uninteresting to cover, thereby ignored or resigned to their invisibility.

Bring it on.